When Ideology Outweighs what’s Best for Kids: the case of San Pasqual Academy

Image: Jeffery Heil, Twitter.com

In 1998, something extraordinary happened in San Diego County. Galvanized by the heartbreaking stories of local foster youth who were disgorged at the age of 18 from a system that never gave them the tools to thrive, the community came together to create a place where foster youth could prepare for happy and productive futures. In 2001, the San Pasqual Academy (SPA) opened as a result of this unique moment of community solidarity and altruism. Twenty years and over 400 graduates later, SPA is on the chopping block because of federal and state legislation that eliminates any funding for placements that are not standard foster homes, unless they are providing temporary intensive treatment for severe mental health conditions.

The story of SPA began in 1998 when James R. Millikan, the presiding judge of the San Diego Juvenile Court, arranged for a group of foster youths to speak to the County Board of Supervisors, as described in a moving video. It was a transformational moment for many of the listeners, who were essentially unaware of the plight of older foster youth. Supervisors were riveted by young foster care alumni, who described surviving as many 30 placements and being discharged to the streets at the age of 18, with no supports or tools for success. This magic moment resulted in the creation of SPA.

In a rare moment of collaboration by multiple agencies and community leaders, SPA was developed with the support of Judge Milliken, the County Board of Supervisors, the Child Welfare Director, the Office of Education, as well as attorneys, social workers, healthcare providers, educators, law enforcement, foster youth, and other community members. They found a disused boarding school for sale on 238 acres, refurbished it, and opened it in September 2001. The goal was to “provide a safe, stable and caring environment” where youth [could] work toward their high school diplomas, prepare for college and/or a vocation, and develop independent living skills.” The Academy was “designed to be a place its students can call home, providing stable relationships needed for development of social skills and future relationships during their student experience at the Academy and beyond.”

SPA services can be classified into four categories: residential, education, work readiness and child welfare.

  • Residential: The residential component is run by New Alternatives, Inc., a private nonprofit. Youths live in family-style homes with house parents for up to eight children per cottage. “Foster grandparents,” who live on campus for reduced rent, mentor, tutor and engage students in hobbies and activities. An on-campus health and wellness center provides comprehensive health care, including mental health. Housing and supportive services are also available to Academy alumni for up to 24 months. (Twelve alumni are living on campus right now, taking advantage of this crucial safety net in the midst of a pandemic.)
  • Education: The onsite high school program is operated by the County Office of Education. After-school activities include student government, athletics, yearbook, and dances.
  • Work Readiness: Provided by the San Diego Workforce Partnership, services include tutoring, career counseling, job training, internships, employment, vocational electives, and assistance in creating resumes and portfolios.
  • Child Welfare: Social workers from the County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) onsite provide case management, services and advocacy.

The resources provided to SPA students are enhanced by the support of Friends of San Pasqual Academy, a dedicated group of community members who provide additional financial support and volunteer work. Friends’ support pays for special events, school supplies, and personal items, all designed to give students a “normal high school experience.” The Friends raise money for maintenance and upgrades to the cottages, the pool and other parts of the facility. They have leveraged outside resources to help SPA. The San Diego Chargers helped build the football field and the Padres built the softball field for SPA.

SPA truly embodies the definition of wraparound services, and the research shows that it works. To assess the effectiveness of the SPA model, New Directions commissioned a ten-year research study that followed 478 SPA alumni, including all youth who attended the academy between February 2001 and June 2011 and left the program between July 2002 and July 2012. The results were summarized in an article titled “Comprehensive residential education: a promising model for emerging adults in foster care,” which was published in Children and Youth Services Review. The findings were impressive. As the authors put it, “Foster youth who participated in the Academy until they were 18 years old or older attained high school diplomas or GEDs at rates far above state and national standards for foster youth. Of the youth who were at least 18 years old when discharged from the Academy, 92% of them graduated with a high school diploma or GED, which greatly exceeds Californias high school graduation/GED rates for foster youth of 45% and for the general population of California youth of 79%….In fact, we are not aware of any other program serving foster youth in the United States…with such high rates of high school diploma/GED completion.”

The evaluators concluded that “the Academy provided its alumni with safety, significant relationships with adults, and well-being that exceed state and national standards for foster youth. Those youth who attended the Academy for longer periods of time through their 18th birthday and participated in extracurricular activities had the most positive outcomes, including safe housing, employment, access to healthcare, attainment of a high school diploma or GED, and attendance at institutions of higher education. The Academy appears to provide a stable, comprehensive residential education program that helps foster youth successfully emerge into adulthood.” A preliminary draft of a follow-up study focusing on current students and alumni is equally glowing.

In addition to the spectacular evaluation mentioned above, SPA has been the subject of several other flattering reports. Five San Diego County “grand juries” (groups appointed by Superior Court judges to investigate, evaluate, and report on the actions of local government) and four county Juvenile Justice Commissions have issued glowing reports on SPA. The most recent report, by the group meeting from 2016-2017, lamented the fact that SPA was operating at only 50 percent of its capacity of 184 students. The Grand Jury recommended that SPA be fully utilized to make full use of its life-saving potential. San Diego’s Juvenile Justice Commission has also issued multiple flattering reports on SPA. In its most recent report, issued in 2018, the commission stated that “SPA continues to be a model facility delivering essentially full service, wrap around services in a residential setting to foster youth.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence of SPA’s life-changing impact, the number of children at SPA declined from 139 in April 2011 to 69 as of February 1, 2021. The most important reason for declining referrals appears to have been the decline in support by child welfare leaders for what is often called “congregate care,” usually meaning any type of setting other than a foster home. This change in mindset was created in large part through influence of two wealthy organizations started by the same family, Casey Family Programs and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, that have used their financial resources to produce reports like Every Kid Needs a Family, lobby legislators, and provide free consultation with states. With the help of the “Casey Alliance,” a new narrative has been created that that all “congregate care” settings are prison-like institutions and any family home is better than a group setting for almost every child.

The change in mindset eventually resulted in legislative changes. California’s Continuum of Care Act, passed in 2015. ended the placement of foster youth in group settings except to provide short term therapeutic care. Thanks to SPA’s known track record and strong support, pilot program was authorized to allow SPA to operate through December 2021. But passage by the U.S. Congress of the the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) sealed SPA’s fate. Like Continuum of Care, FFPSA essentially eliminated federal funding for placement in settings other than foster homes except for short-term placements for youth who assessed to have a diagnosis that requires a level of care that a family cannot provide. With the implementation of FFPSA scheduled for October, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) decided to advance the date of SPA’s closure to avoid having to use state funds to maintain it until December. In an undated letter, CDAA informed San Diego County DHHS that SPA must close by October.

Both Continuum of Care and FFPSA were based on the belief that children almost always do better in families than in other, more institutional settings. But as we have written, supporters often misuse data and research to support this belief. Research generally shows children in group care having poorer outcomes than those in foster care. But these studies do not account for the fact that children placed in group care generally have much more severe issues, which is why they were placed in group care in the first place. Moreover, supporters of “a family for every child” fail to define the concept of a family. The cottages at SPA and many other residential facilities offer a family setting, with house parents who play the parental role, as one house parent eloquently described in the video cited above. SPA homes are much more like families than many foster homes, where the foster parent has little interaction with the youth and provides little besides room and board. In fact, the residential component of SPA could be called “enhanced foster care” more accurately than congregate care.

And that raises the related concept of quality, which the reformers ignored. Quality matters much more than the type of setting. It is likely that most parents whose child had to leave home, would prefer a high-quality group setting (even if not family-style) for their children than a low-quality family setting. Anyone who has worked in foster care will know the difficulty of obtaining high-quality settings for older foster youth. Due to the scarcity of foster families, especially those willing to accept older youth, few jurisdictions can afford to be choosy enough about whom they accept and retain. What they do get more often than not are foster homes that provide little beyond room and board (and often those are barely adequate), foster parents who never set foot in the child’s school, refuse to take them to the doctor and the therapist, and quickly return difficult youths to the agency–resulting in multiple placements for each foster youth. Moreover, in my experience as a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, few of my high school age clients participated in extracurricular activities because foster parents were unwilling to pick them up late from school or take them to weekend games, performances or other activities. Yet, engagement in after-school activities is linked with higher academic performance and college attendance, better health, and fewer problem behaviors.

Opponents of group care also ignore the problem of sibling separation. Many children placed in traditional foster homes are separated from one or more siblings because foster families do not have room for sibling groups. As I argued in Sibling Separation: An Unintended Consequence of the Family First Act, family-style group homes like those provided by SPA have been an important vehicle for keeping siblings together. In addition to providing a home for sibling groups of high school age, SPA accepts siblings of current students who are of middle-school age, allowing them to live at SPA and attend school in the community. The importance of siblings to foster children is such that even some congregate care opponents admit that it is better to place siblings together in congregate care than to separate them into different foster homes.

It is important to note that the restrictions on group care in FFPSA had another purpose aside from the alleged benefits to foster care. Restricting group care, which is more expensive than foster care, was necessary to free up federal funds to pay for the expansion of funding for services to prevent the placement of children in foster care. In other words, to find the money to preserve families, Congress took it away from services to the children who will have to be removed when family preservation fails. As long-time Congressional staffer and child welfare consultant Sean Hughes wrote in the Imprint, the focus among child welfare advocates seems to have shifted almost exclusively toward preventing entry into foster care, with little advocacy being devoted to actually improving the continuum of care for children in out-of-home care.

Current students, alumni and supporters of SPA were stunned by the CDSS letter. A petition on Change.org has obtained almost 11,000 signatures so far. Supporters of SPA have created a Facebook page and deluged public officials with letters and telephone calls. Reverend Shane Harris, the President and founder of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, says SPA changed his life and gave him a safe place to grow up and is fighting to keep it open. One alumna is quoted on the Save San Pasqual Facebook page as follows: “I really loved living at SPA. I got to create relationships, a family and a strong support system. I also became stable by living here. I was able to attend school and catch up from how behind I was. I succeeded in sports and found outlets to deal with emotions. I couldn’t live in foster homes because the families wouldn’t treat me like their own.” Simone Hibbs-Monroe, valedictorian of the class of 2009 told KUSI News that “SPA has been a community safe haven and the only solution for many foster youth and a dedicated home for many alumni of foster care… “It’s an opportunity for children to feel normal. We are able to play sports, get jobs, have pep rallies, have our first proms, get our drivers’ licenses …..these are all the things that the caring community of San Pasqual offers its youth and its alumni….Often people [say] it takes a village to raise a child. That is San Pasqual Academy.”

Current and former staff have joined the call to save SPA. SPA’s Clinical Director, Rex Sheridan, wrote as follows in an eloquent letter to the County Supervisors and San Diego’s DHHS leadership team. “During my career in mental health and youth services, two decades of which has been in San Diego County, I have had contact with and worked in many different settings dedicated to meet the needs of our most vulnerable youth populations; yet none could even remotely be compared to what is offered at SPA. That is why I have now spent a third of my life committed to and working to develop this program because of first-hand experience witnessing lives transformed, hearts opened back up after years of disconnection, wounds healed after lifetimes of abuse and trauma, siblings reunited after separation, goals reimagined out of hopelessness, skills and knowledge crafted and nurtured out of feelings of incompetence, and new identities and possibilities replacing desperation and fragmentation. And if you think that those experiences sound overstated or dramatic, then you haven’t had the privilege of attending games where youth are cheered for the first time in their lives, one of our talent shows where they perform an original song, or a college road trip where they get to visit universities all over the state and envision a new possibility that was never previously imagined.”

What can be done to save SPA? The state and the county must adopt a stop-gap solution to keep SPA running as they work to permanently amend state law to create a category of residential schools that is eligible for reimbursement. On the federal level, advocates are already working on legislation to amend FFPSA to add residential campuses with family style homes as a placement option. We will share more information as it becomes available.

The proposed closure of SPA is a victory of ideology and greed over humanity and common sense. We need more, not fewer San Pasqual Academies. Rather than shutting it down, the state and county should be ensuring that it is at capacity and boasting that within their borders lies the most effective foster care program in the country.